America's best college towns

Strolling along Ithaca Commons in Upstate New York is a crash course in College Town, U.S.A. Spitting distance from both Cornell and Ithaca College, the four-block pedestrian area buzzes with vendors, cafés, festivals, and, of course, students around every bend.

But venture beyond, and there’s another Ithaca to be discovered, including one of the most intriguing wine regions in the country. Sure, big cities have their glitz, but it’s this kind of understated charm, diversity, and affordability that draws visitors to cool college towns.

For our first America’s Favorite Towns survey, we asked T+L fans and followers to post nominations on social media with the hashtag #TLTowns—and then to vote for the 744 towns in 55 categories. Ithaca and other popular college towns scored highly in categories like coffee, bars, and quirkiness (ahem, Asheville, NC), while Burlington, VT, rose to the head of the class as the No. 1 college town.

But it’s not just East Coast college towns that made our list. San Luis Obispo, CA, and Flagstaff, AZ, also won over the T+L community. Read on to find out why these and others made the top 20 list.

No. 1 Burlington, VT (image above)

With local legends like Ben and Jerry and jam-band Phish, this lakefront town (home to the University of Vermont, Burlington College, and Champlain College) is known for its hippie vibe. And while breweries, coffee shops, bike paths, and live music venues solidify its college with a capital C identity, a thriving artisanal food scene suggests that Burlington is growing up. Get a taste at City Market, where you can buy Strafford Creamery Ice Cream, made fresh each week, and, if you arrive around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday or Saturday, a loaf of the highly coveted Gérard Rubaud’s bread.

No. 2 Charlottesville, VA

What do Tina Fey, Bobby Kennedy, and Tiki Barber have in common? All are alums of the University of Virginia. The diversity of graduates hints at the town’s something-for-everyone appeal. History buffs flock to Monticello, while culture hounds stroll the charming downtown pedestrian mall, with restaurants, an ice-skating rink, and the renovated Paramount Theater, where you can see everything from the Moscow Ballet to up-and-coming bands (Dave Matthews Band got its start here in the early ’90s).

No. 3 San Luis Obispo, CA

SLO, as locals call it, might be just any California coastal town if not for California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). The town caters to the student population with events like free outdoor summer concerts in the Mission Plaza every Friday evening and an international film festival held every March. T+L readers gave it the top score for coffee; get your fix at The Nautical Bean. There are more than 25 wineries within a 20-minute drive and, this being California, a plethora of outdoor activities, including hiking, sea kayaking, and, of course, surfing.

No. 4 Williamsburg, VA

If your only experience with this town was a tour led by aspiring actors in period garb, it’s time for a repeat visit. Venture beyond Colonial Williamsburg, and you’ll find downtown’s thriving arts district. Fuel your tour of the galleries with a stop at Extraordinary Cupcakes, and finish off with a Sichuan meal at the newly opened Peter Chang. Businesses stay open late for block parties on the first Friday of the month.

No. 5 Harrisonburg, VA

Beer and bikes—not necessarily enjoyed in that order—are two strong suits of Harrisonburg, a Shenandoah Valley town that’s home to James Madison University. Three Brothers Brewing and Capital Ale House have become major fixtures in Harrisonburg’s revitalized downtown, which is crisscrossed by bike paths. Set out on one of those easy trails or tackle the mountain-bike trails in George Washington National Forest.

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No. 6 Boulder, CO

With its 300-plus days of sunshine each year, the gorgeous slopes of the Flatirons at the edge of town, and locals who could be cast in commercials for a healthy, active lifestyle, Boulder (home of the University of Colorado campus) naturally scored near the top of the class among college towns. Hop on a bike from B-cycle, the town’s bike-sharing program, and cruise down Pearl Street, whose shops specialize in the local, from jewelry to cheese to beer. Treat yourself to a fresh pasta dinner at Frasca Food and Wine, one of the nation’s best Italian restaurants.

No. 7 St. Augustine, FL

Thanks to its oldest-city-in-the-country claim to fame—not to mention 43 miles of beaches—this coastal town has long been a favorite among tourists. But it’s the mix of the old and the new that makes St. Augustine so interesting. Alongside its historic inns, such as Carriage Way Bed & Breakfast, are restaurants and bars opened by a younger set. The Floridian, for example, draws a hip crowd with its southern food made with fresh, local ingredients. St. Augustine is home to Flagler College and St. Johns River State College. Also in the area are the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University, and Florida State College at Jacksonville in Jacksonville.

No. 8 Asheville, NC

Sure, the most popular tourist attraction is the opulent Biltmore Estate, but Asheville itself is down-to-earth and quirky in the best of ways. A highly satisfying, if jam-packed, day could include whitewater rafting, hiking, or mountain biking; small-batch brews at Wicked Weed Brewing; a pie and a pint at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria; and a concert at The Orange Peel or, if it’s summer, on the lawn at Pack Square Park for Shindig on the Green. These are the kind of everyman pleasures that appeal to students of UNC Asheville and visitors alike.

No. 9 Fredericksburg, VA

There’s plenty to learn here outside the University of Mary Washington. With a national historic district full of buildings dating back to the 1700s (including the houses of George Washington’s mother, brother, and sister) and four Civil War battlegrounds in and around town, Fredericksburg is steeped in—though by no means stuck in—the past. The latest renaissance has been in food and drink. Foode and Poppy Hill, two restaurants fiercely committed to the farm-to-table philosophy, have awakened the dining scene. And the RF&P Grapes & Grains Trail draws visitors with its four wineries, a brewery, and a distillery.

No. 10 Flagstaff, AZ

Flagstaff, home of Northern Arizona University, feels positively made for kids and families. During warm months, the fun revolves around Heritage Square, where kids can attend workshops on everything from pottery to salsa dancing. At night, spread a blanket on the lawn and enjoy a family-friendly movie or a concert. Flagstaff is famous for its impossibly starry skies, and there’s no better spot to get a look than Lowell Observatory.

See All of America’s Best College Towns

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